Reagan's essence was optimism, patriotism … [There are] celebrations across the country and world of the 100th birthday of our 40th president, Ronald Wilson Reagan (left). I was privileged to serve President Reagan in two capacities, first as his chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and then again as his secretary of education … Many are too young to remember the full legacy and meaning of Reagan. But to begin, one has to first recall his accomplishments as president. Against the economic theories of his political opponents, he believed in a somewhat new concept in American political economics: supply-side economic policy …When he became president in 1981, the economy was in a shambles, our national mood was dour and the Soviet Union appeared to be the growth industry around the world while the United States seemed to be receding both on the world stage and in much of the world's respect for us … When Reagan took office, the Soviet Union was on the march and appeared as hardened in its existence and commitment to Marxism-Leninism as ever. It had recently invaded Afghanistan, and it was causing trouble and creating satellites from Central America to Africa while its grip on Eastern Europe was unrelenting. Two years after Reagan left office, the Soviet Union ceased to exist. – Bill Bennet/CNN
Dominant Social Theme: The great free-market sage of the 20th century taught us all how to live out our dreams of freedom and prosperity.
Free-Market Analysis: Anyone who lived through the 1980s Reagan era in America probably remembers the "aw shucks" charm of the great man as he smiled his way through absolutely unequal presidential debates with a humble grace. The palpable sense of despair that gripped the US back then was not to be rivaled until late in the first decade of the 21st century. Reagan indeed proved a calming hand on the presidential tiller. He didn't start any big wars; did chop some taxes (initially) and generally spoke out against the regulatory onslaught of an out-of-control Leviathan.
Compare Reagan's reign to that of the second George Bush – also a conservative, albeit of the compassionate conservative variety. Reagan suggested abolishing the Dept. of Education at the federal level and would have been happy to do away with PBS as well. George Bush not only did not do away with the Dept. of Education, he gave it a vast, new authoritarian mandate via "No Child Left Behind." Before 9/11, he was contemplating ways to involve the US religious community in federal grant programs.
After 9/11, Bush wielded the vast apparatus of the US federal government with increased enthusiasm if that were possible. He started but did not finish two overseas wars and vastly expanded unconstitutional domestic spying programs including illegal wiretaps and even involved US intel services in intricate rendition programs around the world designed to facilitate torture of "terrorists."
Bush seemed to positively revel in the power that accrued to him as a "war president." There was no civil liberty he was not willing to traduce, no human rights violation he was not willing to embrace, no security-oriented depravity, apparently, he was not willing to contemplate in order to increase America's putative security and freedom.
Economically, Bush vastly expanded both domestic and military spending; while he did "cut" taxes at the beginning of his first term, most of America's faux-prosperity during his reign came from the monetary manipulations of central banker Alan Greenspan, who expanded the country's monetary base endlessly with Bush's tacit encouragement. The result was a phenomenal bust that all but destroyed the Western world's dollar reserve currency and thus far has demanded an additional US$20-$50 trillion in additional monetary liquefactions.
It was impossible ruin that Bush left behind. (And it is possible to blame the equally ruinous regime of Barack Obama on Bush's meaningful malfeasences.) The US was a tottering fiat empire when he came into power; it was a raddled, tortured hulk when he left, entering a depression. The US was a mighty military power when Bush came into office; when he departed he left behind two wars draining the Treasury mercilessly; both continue today to further bankrupt what is left of the American public purse.
When he entered office, the nation was clothed in the fiction of a constitutional republic; Bush stripped away whatever civil rights protections he could in the name of domestic security and even his rhetoric was poisenous. He supervised the inaptly named Patriot Act and the obscene department of "Homeland Security" – truly a boot stamping endless on America's face.
Bush seemed positively to revel in endless, merciless expansions of state authority; one truly never got that impression regarding Ronald Reagan. Whatever else can be said of the man, he seemed to have entered the highest office in the United States with some real convictions about shrinking an out-of-control government. It is the sincerity that one might choose to honor on his birthday, something conspicuously lacking in almost all national politicians currently with the exception, currently, of Ron Paul (R-TX).
Another point to note about Reagan is that while he was a principled conservative when it came to such issues as abortion, one did not get the sense that he wished to take aim at America's larger liberties regarding free-speech even when he disapproved of it. One cannot, for instance, imagine him personally proposing a rendition program aimed at torturing American citizens for speaking out in ways that he disapproved.
In Reagan, therefore, were (partially) embodied two noble strands of Jeffersonian thought: economic liberty and personal freedom. Reagan was something of a libertarian president, perhaps the closest to one rhetorically in the later 20th century. Bush was merely an authoritarian, someone who may have called the Constitution "a damn piece of paper."
Having made these positive statements about Reagan, it is important to point out that his rhetoric – and seeming sincerity – often exceeded his accomplishments. Supply side economics was apparently developed in large part to avoid a conversation about cutting the defense budget. In fact, he left the American Leviathan further in debt, mostly due to enormous military expenditures. The idea that the USSR collapsed because of the military challenge he posed also seems a dubious conclusion. Vast and intricate totalitarian states like the USSR collapse for a variety of reasons, many of them evident with increasing severity for decades.
Reagan has certainly become an icon of the "conservative" right in America, and even of some so-called Neocons – those who believe in morally conservative (repressive) positions domestically and an expansive and violent security policies abroad. In a sense, the present celebration of Reagan by conservatives has more to do with an endorsement of the military industrial complex and the burgeoning security state than Reagan's real belief structure.
It is difficult to recall the optimism of the Reagan years and it is likely that they could not be replicated today. The salvation of America and the West does not in fact lie in politics but in education about free markets, the Anglosphere and its manipulative fear-based promotions – and eventual goal of world government. The Internet era promises the possibility of more meaningful free-market evolution outside the system. This is perhaps what frightens the political adulators of the cult of Reagan more than anything else.